Species spiraling into extinction
Environmental groups challenge rule they believe is to blame
Saturday, November 19, 2005
When a strategy to save spotted owls on state timberlands was approved eight years ago, Washington officials predicted a slow decline in the population of the reclusive birds and planned accordingly.
Newer data show spotted owl numbers plummeting statewide -- seven times faster than expected. While the cause of the decline is complicated, why isn't the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with protecting the threatened birds, bolstering the strategy?
Some environmentalists blame a provision in the Washington habitat conservation plan that prevents federal officials from making the state Department of Natural Resources do more to protect the owls.
The "no surprises" clause -- a common ingredient in habitat plans -- is a shield against further onerous federal requirements.
It's part of a national program intended to let landowners log, develop, mine and recreate on their property. In trade, they're supposed to benefit creatures protected by the Endangered Species Act. That can mean leaving a portion of the land untouched or restoring damaged habitat.
But environmental groups are challenging the provision, contending in a lawsuit filed last week in Washington, D.C., that it is driving species into oblivion.
"The biological stakes are too high," said Dyche Kinder, wildlife committee chairman with The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based recreation group and one of the plaintiffs.
"We cannot as an organization accept the extinction of a species sacrificed on the altar of economic short-term interests," he said.
The suit wants the government to rewrite or scrap the rule, and a related regulation that determines when the plans can be revoked.
Joining The Mountaineers as plaintiffs are the national Humane Society, two California environmental groups and two individuals.
Fish and Wildlife officials declined to comment on the suit but defended the habitat program, insisting meaningful protections are in place to shield vulnerable creatures. They said that plans require population monitoring and have mechanisms for increasing protection.
Across the nation, hundreds of threatened and endangered species and 37 million acres are covered by these plans -- an area nearly the size of Illinois.
A plan to protect salmon, bull trout and steelhead that covers 9.1 million acres of privately owned timberland in Washington is nearing approval. The so-called Forests and Fish plan would be the largest in the West.
"No surprises" has been controversial since its introduction in 1994. The current suit contends that it and the revocation rule run afoul of the intent of the Endangered Species Act, which is to foster the recovery of endangered species.
"It's not enough to hold the line where it is," Kinder said.
But Rick Sayers, who heads the national program for Fish and Wildlife, disagreed.
"It's fairly clear that it is not the goal of an HCP to recover a species," he said.
Other federal officials defend the need for a "no surprises" guarantee.
"Landowners need some certainty about the limits of what they will be required to do in order to be in compliance with the law," said Hugh Vickery, an Interior Department spokesman. "It's a way of saying, 'A deal's a deal.' "
If a plan goes sour, the government can ask a landowner to voluntarily do more to help out, or it can spend taxpayer's money to increase protections. In dire cases, the permit can be revoked, although it's rarely done.
So far, the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which agreed to its 70-year habitat plan in 1997, has not been asked to boost aid to the spotted owl. The plan spans 1.6 million acres and is supposed to help marbled murrelets, grizzlies and other species while allowing timber harvests.
It's unclear exactly why and where the owls are disappearing.
"It's too soon ... to know specifically what is happening with owls on DNR land," said Tami Riepe, a wildlife biologist in charge of the state's plan.
LICENSE TO KILL
Read the P-I series examining the nation's flawed habitat conservation system online: